Book Review: The Church

The Church: An Introduction

My Rating – Probably not worth your time

Level – Short (the goal of the series), some academic language, but mostly readable. 

Summary – The book is technically broken into two sections, Foundational Issues and Mere Ecclesiology and More Ecclesiology. However, part one, really functions as more of an extended introduction. The two chapters of this section are The Triune God and the Church, and The Church According to Scripture. The latter looks at the different words used for church, gathering, and temple in the Old and New Testaments. 

The bulk of the book is found in part two, which is broken into six chapters – The Identity, Leadership, Government, Ordinances or Sacraments, Ministries, and Future of the Church. The ‘mere’ versus ‘more’ ecclesiology is a rubric of sorts, wherein each chapter he discusses the ‘mere’ of the particular topic first, which is the basic agreements that all churches have now, or have had in the past. The ‘more’ part is where he dives into the differences between various churches or theological views. 

There is also the series introduction, and an introduction by Allison, conclusion, ‘further reading’, and indexes. 

My Thoughts – Allison is a strong writer, who has had success at the popular level. I’ve read a few of his books and always enjoyed them, but something just wasn’t working right in this. It could have been an editor situation, or the way the put the book together, but it often became quite redundant. I mean in a verbatuum since, he would write an intro paragraph for each chapter that end with ‘I will show X in turn’, then ended the chapter with, ‘I have shown X’. It was oddly academic for what I had assumed was meant to be a more popular writing. His Historical Theology text is more readable than parts of this. Additionally, the ‘mere/more’ was repetitive in the same way and a bit contrived. The actual content, outside of the framework, was very accessible and readable. I’m not sure what was going on. 

The content itself, was kind of a mixed bag. I appreciate his defense/discussion on the Trinity, but it didn’t seem to fit. The Church According to Scripture was helpful and interesting. Identity was quick and solid. Leadership was perhaps the worst chapter. He makes the claim that ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are used interchangeable, which is pretty clear not only in the Greek, but also in the way it is used in the NT. However, he also claims ‘pastor’ is interchangeable with these two terms as well. He offers in example nor any linguistic proof, but rather points to Peter saying that elders should be good shepherds (the word translated is how we get the word pastor). He then quickly moves on. I am not entirely sure why he makes this claim, which is clearly lacking support, but I could speculate a few reasons that are beyond the scope of this review. 

Government, Ordinances, and Future were the strongest parts of the book. He explanation of governing options was one of the clearest concise write-ups I’ve seen. The baptism part of Ordinances was short, but I think that is actually a better way to handle. I’ve seen interesting arguments that there aren’t really four views of communion, but really just three, but he sticks with the traditional four views and does a pretty good job with the nuances. Much like Government, the chapter on the Future of the church was one of the best, concise writings I’ve seen. These two chapters function very well as almost a cliff-notes, without sacrificing too much understanding. 

That being said, this book is still probably not worth your time. While still short, there is too much unnecessary writing and the ‘mere/more’ distinctions really fell a little flat. There are a few strong chapters, but others are mixed. I appreciate what Crossway is trying to do by basically giving you chapters on what would be a Systematic, but meant to be shorter and more readable. However, based on this one, I wouldn’t really recommend that approach. Additionally, there are other books that focus on the Church that are better, though not many hit on the future (but there are hundreds of those). Unless this is a topic you are just starting to read on, and really need somewhere to start (in which case you could benefit from the ‘further reading’ section), this book probably isn’t worth it. 

*I received a copy of this in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Wisdom Pyramid

My Rating – Must Read

Level – Quick, easy read; short (< 200 pages)

Summary
Modeled on the old school (though not as old as I thought) ‘food pyramid’, McCracken seeks to give us guidelines for what to consume to gain wisdom. The book is broken into two parts. First, keeping with the food metaphor (eating too much, too fast, and unbalance) is the ‘source of our sickness’ which has three chapters: Information Gluttony, Perpetual Novelty, and ‘Look Within’ Autonomy. Part two lays out the pyramid in these chapters: Part Two Intro, The Bible, The Church, Nature, Books, Beauty, The Internet and Social Media, and What Wisdom Looks Like (which is part summary and part conclusion for the whole book). There is also an introduction (An Unwise Age) that does well to diagnoses many of our current issues.

My Thoughts
The first part of the book was unexpected. I thought the focus would be just the pyramid, but McCraken does a great and concise job of diagnosing the problem. That made the book stronger and I appreciate his continued use of the food metaphor. Overall, I agreed with most of his food groups, but not all. In his defense, he points out that the metaphor breaks down a bit, but the overall focus was balance. Starting with the Bible is a good choice, obviously you can’t really read it more than all other books combined, and his point isn’t that you should read other books.

The next two levels, the church and nature, were really well done. Considering these are all short chapters, everyone should read this the book, but these two chapters were probably the best. He does a great job of pointing to the communal aspect of church, and reading this now (hopefully with the end in sight) in the pandemic, is an important reminder of what we are missing. I was skeptical of nature at first. I enjoy the outdoors (fishing, hiking, camping, etc.), but I’m usually wary of Christians how push it as necessary (conflating the outdoor life with ‘manliness’), but that is not at all what he did. He writes of the value of nature for our brains, touching on neuroscience, and the enjoyment of God’s creations. He reaches back to Augustine and Calvin and the ‘two-book’ theory of general revelation. It is probably one of the best handlings of nature by a Christian author that I have read.

Books, of course, was great. He is a big book guy, I’m a big book guy. I remain skeptical that if you are not an avid reader, that you would agree with him. Most people aren’t going to read 30-50 books a year, but maybe he could have set a goal for people on the lower end, or people who don’t challenge themselves to read, preferring, instead, to live a life of functional illiteracy. I must point out, because it is so often incorrectly quoted, that C.S. Lewis said read ONE old book for every three NEW books. People often flip the quote.

The weakest chapter for me was beauty. I understand he was likely being vague so that it could encompass various arts, but I wonder if the point would be clearer/stronger, if he dove into one think (i.e. Music). Or at least encourage people to actively participate. This may not be what he actually believes, that we must create, but I find that to be a little closer to the truth. The final chapter is on social media/internet. He makes a compelling argument to not abandon them completely and offers strong guidance on how to cultivate use. I am not a heavy social media uses, so much of what he offered seemed simple, but I know it is more difficult for others.

I thought one thing that was missing, or maybe just not pointed out clearly enough, was TV. I could see how quality TV/Movies (he is a professional movie critic) could fit into beauty, but also (he points to bingeing on Netflix) social media/internet. Maybe I’m just old for thinking of TV as a separate category (don’t worry, I do stream shows, no cable at the MMT household), but on the other hand, I don’t know many things that waste as much of peoples time in mindless consumption as TV. Sure, you may mindlessly scroll for 30 minutes on Facebook, but people will eat dinner in front of the TV, then watch for another four hours, before going to bed.

The only other issue I had, and to stick with his food metaphor, was this was really just a sampling. Again in his defense, I believe this was by design. I will likely pull more books from his end notes than I typically do. I’ve read most of the tech ones (his big omission was Irresistible, about the way tech has been made to be ‘addictive’. I had not read many of the books from the nature chapter, that seem like they integrate theology and nature well or on a psychology and nature level.

Overall, I think everyone needs to read this book. It is relatively short and can give you great guidance on your consumption. Extra points to him and the publishers for adding discussion questions. I already know a guy who is doing this book with his men’s group. This book would be a great discussion starter on how you are spending time and ways you can reorder your intake, especially on tech and books. It isn’t perfect, and many people will disagree with the levels (outside of the top and the bottom, hopefully), but it is a compelling starting point and a must read.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The City of God and the Goal of Creation

My Rating: If you are looking for something

Level: Moderate read, short (just under 200)

Summary

Alexander traces the concept of ‘City’ throughout the Bible, starting with Genesis (specifically Tower of Babylon) through the rest of the OT (specifically Jerusalem as the temple city) to the end of the New Testament (with the coming of the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation). 

The book is broken into eight chapters, The Godless City, The Temple-City, The Holy Mountain City, The Royal City, Envisaging a Transformed City, and Hope for Jerusalem beyond Divine Judgement, Seeking the City That Is To Come, and Anticipating New Jerusalem. There is also an introduction (plus the series introduction), a ‘further reading’, as well as general and scriptural indices. 

My Thoughts

If you are expecting the title to be drawn from Augustine’s book of the same name, you’ll be a little disappointed. This is where it is important to closely read the book description. That is not the fault of the book, but I was expecting something else. I’m sure the Augustinian influence was part of the title choice, but if you are looking for a well known book from the past to play off of, I would have gone with ‘Tale of Two Cities’. The bulk of the book, the first six chapters, deal with the Old Testament dichotomy of Babylon vs. Jerusalem. Chapter 7, deals with Christ/Us as the new temple/new city, while only the final chapters discusses the future New Jerusalem in the New Earth.

As a professional city planner, any discussion of cities is interesting to me. Alexander does an excellent job in his exegesis of the various Biblical Passages that deal with the two cities. I would have liked to have more about the New Jerusalem, but I suppose as part of the ‘not yet’, we don’t know a good deal about it, nor do we have much to say. As far as the physical attributes of the New Jerusalem, his understanding and interpretation is one of the best I’ve read.  

Overall, this was a good book, particularly for anyone specifically interested in the Biblical treatment of cities. However, I wonder how broadly interesting it may be. Again, this is not the fault of the book. When I finished it, I went back to review the series intro. Each book is narrowly construed, by design. I don’t know if the long term plan is to bind them all in one massive take on a Systematic, with each book being a section, but that is ultimately how they read. I’ve read Work and Our Labor in the Lord, it is also pretty good, and I see a few others I’d like to read. However, popularily, I think most will enjoy this book, but it is probably best for those looking for something specifically about cities.  

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Work and Our Labor in the Lord

Work and Our Labor in the Lord (Short Studies in Biblical Theology)

Rating – If you are looking for something.

Level – Short, moderate read, feels a little redundant at times

Summary
Hamilton attempts to concisely write a theology of work – why we work, what it means to work, and what it would look like to ‘labor for the Lord’. The book is broken into four main parts: work before the fall, work after the fall, work now after Christ’s coming, and finally, work in the new heavens and new earth.

My Thoughts
I’ll start off by saying I think this is one of the most difficult topics for which Christians can write. Not necessarily because the Bible is unclear on work, it is, and not because I thought Hamilton didn’t handle the theological points well. In fact, I thought he did a masterful job from a Biblical perspective; though there were occasionally odd section that appeared to have political undertones, but I guess that’s to be expected from an evangelical publication (or maybe I just read too much into it, and watch too much politics).

No, the problem is the reader. Especially me – educated, white-collar, upper-middle class reader, who has actual opportunities to think about different careers or finding fulfilling jobs. Due to the reader problem, I think books on work are hammered twice. First, because the reader looking for answers, such as what should I do with my life, do not find any and may come away disappointed. Second, because those are the readers, the authors tend to focus on that demographic. Hamilton avoids some of these trappings, probably due to his focus on theology, but they do show up. I won’t digress any further on that point.

The strength of this book is the first section, work before the fall. In our Biblically illiterate, 140 character limit culture, we miss too much of what the Bible actually says. For most of my life, I believed work was punishment for sin. I was around 30 before I heard someone point out that we worked the garden, it was one of the first commands from God and our original role in this world. So, work isn’t our punishment for sin, but our sin has corrupted out work. Hamilton does a great job of teaching and explaining this Biblical truth.

This point is expanded on in the work after the fall section as well. I especially liked the references to Ecclesiastes; which is always a great reminder of the way we view life in general, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it related specifically to work.

Overall, it is a solid book, but it left me wanting a little more. I’m probably a little too critical of Christian books focused on work, so if that is a topic you are studying you should put this book on your list. If not, you might want to skip. It is short, so that is a positive (why not just knock it out) and a negative (maybe not as in depth as you’d like). The Biblical Theology is strong, so that would be another reason to read it. So, grab this book, if you are looking for something.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.